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Monthly Archives: February 2021

Solving the agency search intelligence gap

February 9, 2021 No Comments

30-second summary:

  • Agencies are particularly struggling to find ways to gain a broad view of the search market.
  • Many agencies rely too heavily on Google tools which on provide top-level search insights and need better tools.
  • COVID-19 is resulting in surprising search results and agencies are having trouble explaining these outcomes without proper data.

Search advertising is one of the most dynamic and rapidly evolving areas of the advertising ecosystem today. And as search continues to emerge as the barometer by which all other advertising activities are gauged, the need for sophisticated search intelligence has never been higher.

Yet, agencies, in particular, are continuing to have difficulties deriving the search intelligence they need and finding ways to unlock the potential of the insights that they already have on hand. Moreover, as agencies continue to invest in more data-generating tools, they are having to sift through more data than ever, and are struggling to keep up.

With that in mind, below are some key items agencies should keep in mind when it comes to their search intelligence infrastructure and how they can get the best out of it.

Agencies only have a fragmented search view

The search landscape is vast and continues to reshape itself on a daily basis. Therefore, having the most comprehensive view of the search landscape and all its nuances is imperative to driving success and making the most informed decisions possible. And data is the key component in building this holistic view.

Incomplete and inaccurate data can not only depress campaign effectiveness but can also have detrimental impacts on an advertiser’s standing versus competitors. For example, without high-quality data insights, it becomes impossible for advertisers to detect when competitors start to encroach on their brand terms — among other things. However, with the proper data tools in place, agencies can build better strategies for clients so that they can achieve maximum ROI and protect their market position.

Google tools don’t allow for proper performance analysis

While Google does provide a top-level view of search performance it does not nearly do so in the depth that is needed for agencies to be able to properly explain performance to their clients, particularly as it relates to competitor activity. Agencies need to be able to quickly justify why performance has changed and what steps can be taken to address these fluctuations — positive or negative. And Google simply does not allow them to do this. Additionally, without a comprehensive set of insights, it can be very hard for agencies to justify budget needs to their clients as well, and how to counteract the spends that other competitors are dedicating to certain segments. So agencies should be very wary of only relying on Google’s analytics tools.

Explaining the COVID-19 effect

As COVID-19 has disrupted consumer online and search behavior it has also materially impacted the search industry. From differences in the types of searches to a growing prevalence of local search as individuals looking to stay closer to home amid the pandemic, the entire search industry is scrambling to make sense of what may unfold next as a result of the current crisis. In addition, as we continue to move towards the conclusion of the pandemic, search professionals are also being tasked with figuring out which pandemic era trends may stick around and which ones won’t, adding a further layer of complexity to this already hectic period. Questions like, “which industries will emerge first?”, as well as, “which competitors will emerge fastest?” all need to be answered.

Luckily, by embracing a more ‘whole-market’ approach to data, agencies can quickly make sense of the changes that are occurring and deliver data-driven explanations to clients seeking answers for why an unexpected outcome took place. Furthermore, agencies can keep track of which pandemic era trends seem to have “staying power” and game plan accordingly.

Enabling a holistic view

Given how many different silos exist organizationally at agencies, it isn’t surprising that synthesizing all of the data that exists and reporting on it is hugely labor-intensive. This can be particularly challenging for agencies that are assessing strategies across the full complement of clients’ advertising activity, including traditional channels such as TV and radio along with other digital channels like mobile and paid social in addition to search.

Breaking down the walls that exist between the different branches of agencies is the only way to get the “truth” when it comes to reporting. This means making sure that the data is fully harmonized, comparable, and accessible through an integrated tool that provides the right capabilities for each agency role. AI can also play a critical role in creating fast, highly usable insights that can quickly translate into action. . This integrated and intelligent approach will cut down significantly on time spent generating reports while also making an agency’s performance much more agile, effective, and accurate.

After having to deal with a tremendous amount of upheaval and rethinking over the last decade, the idea of having to adapt is not a new one for agencies. Yet, while agencies have done well to roll with the times thus far, search still represents a bit of a pain point. However, by re-examining the current state of their data operations, agencies can boost their search intelligence exponentially, while making their entire business more intelligent as well.

Ian O’Rourke is CEO at Adthena and Stephen Davis is the Global Product Leader for Media Intelligence at Kantar, a leading British market research company.

The post Solving the agency search intelligence gap appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Search Engine Watch


Opinion News Found By Machine Learning at Google

February 9, 2021 No Comments

Opinion News in Top Stories Earlier this year, I wrote a post about news stories that are shown in carousels in Google Top Stories Are Chosen By Importance Scores The patent I wrote about in that post told us that Google may attempt to show opinion pieces related to topics that were being identified as … Read more

The post Opinion News Found By Machine Learning at Google appeared first on SEO by the Sea ⚓.


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Image SEO: Best practices and tips for optimization

February 8, 2021 No Comments

30-second summary:

  • Optimizing images is an often overlooked aspect.
  • While images might look great, they often end up with a filename that looks something like IMG982713.jpg that is not very descriptive.
  • According to Internet Live Stats, there are 3.5 billion Google searches made every day.
  • CannonDesign’s Vice President, Communications Director shares some key image SEO tips and best practices to help you use images as an asset in your SEO strategy.

SEO involves a lot of different parts and strategies, some of them can be quick fixes and others can take much longer to implement. So you can see why it’s easy to forget something especially for a company that is not used to doing these things and are trying to do SEO for the first time. It’s easy to perhaps overlook some of the smaller steps involved in practicing good on-site SEO. It’s important to remember that every little thing you can do to strengthen your site’s SEO efforts makes a difference and this is especially true if it’s something that other sites may be overlooking.

Optimizing images is an often overlooked aspect. As a site gets planned, designed and images get added more often than not, the images get added without being properly optimized, as long as they look good, the thought of images tends to end there. While the images might look great, they often end up with a filename that looks something like IMG982713.jpg and as you can see, that is not a very descriptive image file name. So without the proper optimization and planning, you’re wasting a valuable SEO asset.

Why is image SEO important?

According to Internet Live Stats, there are 3.5 billion Google searches made every day. And in 2018 Google Images accounted for 22.6% of all internet searches.

Optimizing your site’s images will help with your site’s UX, load time, and improve your site’s rankings in the regular SERPs as well as image search. Image SEO is especially important if you’re an ecommerce site, as you will most likely have hundreds of images, and if not properly optimized you will be missing out on lots of potential traffic and rankings.

Image optimization will play an even larger role in search with the advancement of visual search, by being able to use images to purchase products for example. Google and Bing both use for visual search, Google has their Google Lens and Bing has their visual search.

If the images on your website aren’t properly marked up and optimized, now’s the time to focus your efforts towards that aspect of your site’s SEO.

Ecommerce image optimization

If you run an ecommerce business then you know that SEO is a different beast and how important every little change or tweak that you can do to your site is to help you to gain an edge on the competition.

One of these things is image optimization. Images account for more bytes than any other part of a website, and this is especially true for ecommerce sites, as they tend to have hundreds if not thousands of products and therefore product images. All these product images can have a large impact on your site’s performance which can also impact your customer retention and conversions.

This is why optimizing your site’s images is one of the best ways to improve website performance and SERP rankings, which is especially beneficial when it comes to large ecommerce sites as all the images can potentially slow down your site and with Google’s new upcoming core web vitals update your sites speed is more important now than ever.

Here are six tips on what you can do to help with your site’s image optimization + three bonus tips.

1. Create customized image filenames

This is where your image SEO starts, with the image file name. When you are naming your image file names, you’ll want to use a descriptive file name that also contains the right keywords for the image. The reason for this is that your image file name will be used to help Google understand what the subject matter of the image is.

It’s important to remember that your image’s file name is what will inform Google and other search engines as to what your image is about.

For example, a typical let’s take this image file name will look something like  “IMG-1234” or something similar. as you might imagine, that image file name will not be of much help to users or Google as nobody would search for that and having that as a file name gives no information to Google either.

Now let’s look at this picture from GSC or Google Search Console for example.

Image SEO - Example

You could simply name it “GSC” or “google-search-console” but if you get more descriptive and name it “google-search-console-traffic-spike” you would be helping users and search engines to better understand the image.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can go back to the days of stuffing keywords in your image file names. Doing that will surely get you penalized and or even banned from Google. Keep your filenames descriptive and straightforward and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Remember, it doesn’t take much effort to rename images to something a little more descriptive unless you have an ecommerce site with hundreds or thousands of products, then it will take So it’s worth doing and something that will help with your site’s rankings in the long run.

2. Write SEO-friendly image alt text

Alt-text is important for your site’s images as it is what you can use to help provide better image context that in turn will help search engines index your images properly. It is also what will appear if there is something wrong with your image and it fails to load.

Google even mentions the value of alt text in images, saying that alt text provides them with useful information about the image that they can use to help determine the best image to return for a user’s query.

3. Image file size

Your image file size plays an important role in how your site will load for both users and search engines. Having large (file size) images on your site can cause your site to load very slow. With page speed becoming a ranking factor, it’s even more important than before to make sure your site loads in seconds.

Your site’s images can be massive files and that is not helpful when it comes to user experience. This is where optimizing your site’s image file size plays a large role as all the huge file sizes can directly affect your ranking in SERPs and image searches, especially if you have a large ecommerce site with hundreds or even thousands of images.

You can’t afford to reduce your image file size in a haphazard manner, this is something that needs to be done properly, otherwise, you will end up with a low quality looking image. Adobe Photoshop’s ‘Save for Web’ functionality offers one of the best options for you to reduce the image file size without affecting the quality of the image.

If you don’t have access to Adobe Photoshop, there are lots of other great online tools that you can use for free to make these changes. Tinyjpeg is a great tool and so is Google’s very own image compression tool Squoosh.

Squoosh allows you to preview the changes in the quality of your images when you start making changes to your images. You simply just have to drag and drop your image into the web app and you are all set to make the adjustments to your image file size.

Image SEO - Compression tool Squoosh example

As you can see with the above Las Vegas sign image, the left side is the newly reduced file size at 27% smaller than the original on the right. Can you spot the difference in quality?

Once you have made all the changes to your image file sizes, you can then test your site’s page speed with one of the many tools available online.

There are lots of tools that you can use to test your site’s speed, such as WebPageTest.org or Pingdom. Google has a few great tools that you can use for free to check your site’s speed, Lighthouse, Pagespeed Insights, and their page speed tool Test My site.

Loading times are important for UX and SEO, so make sure that you reduce your site’s image file sizes to ensure that you have a fast loading site. This tweak to your site will pay off in the long run and is worth the little effort that it takes to make the change.

4. Choose the best image file type

Three main image file types are the most common that you can use across your site, they are JPEG, GIF, and PNG. Each one has its pros and cons. JPEG tends to be the best option as it’s the format that provides the best options for maintaining image quality when compressed or resized.

PNG is often used for logos as it gives you the ability to create a small image with a high-quality resolution. You need to be careful though as the higher quality display will result in a larger file size, which could cause issues with your page’s performance.

GIFs are similar to PNG files as they are good smaller images, they shouldn’t be used on product photos or lagers images.

JPEG is the best option format as it keeps file sizes small without losing image quality and it is also universally supported.

5. Create an image sitemap

Just like a sitemap that you would create for all the pages on your site, creating an image sitemap or adding your images to your current sitemap, will help Google to discover your site’s images, increasing the likelihood that your images will be displayed in image search results and generating more site traffic.

“Image sitemaps can contain URLs from other domains, unlike regular sitemaps, which enforce cross-domain restrictions. This allows you to use CDNs (content delivery networks) to host images. We encourage you to verify the CDN’s domain name in Search Console so that we can inform you of any crawl errors that we may find.”

, says Google

It’s important that you add your site’s images to a sitemap and especially important if you run an ecommerce business and want all your product images to be indexed. You can add your images to your existing sitemap or create a new sitemap for your images. The main idea is that you want all of your images somewhere in your sitemaps.

Placing your images in a sitemap increases the chances of search engines crawling and indexing your images which can then result in more site traffic.

There are lots of different tools that you can use to help generate your site’s sitemap, these two are a great starting point, but feel free to choose the one that is best suited for your needs.

  1. Screaming Frog: Screaming Frog is one of my go-to tools in my SEO arsenal, it’s great desktop software that offers a wide range of SEO tools. It’s also free to use including generating a sitemap as long as your website has fewer than 500 pages. For those of you with larger websites, you’ll need to upgrade the paid version.
  2. Yoast: Yoast is a must-have SEO plugin if you are running WordPress, they make it super simple to create a sitemap, by simply toggling a switch.

6. Open Graph and Twitter Cards

By using Facebook’s Open Graph and Twitter Cards on your site, you will be making sure that your site’s content is more clickable, shareable, and noticeable on social media.

Facebook has a comprehensive list of OG tags that you can use across your site but I find that these are the ones that you will want to focus on.

  • Og:title
  • Og:url
  • Og:image
  • Og:type
  • Og:description

You will want to pay special attention to the og:image tag as this is the most essential Open Graph tag as it is the one that occupies the most social feed real estate.

Twitter Cards work in the same way that Facebook’s Open Graph tags work.

Using Twitter’s ‘Summary Card with Large Image‘ tag is one that you will want to focus on when it comes to images.

“The Summary Card with Large Image features a large, full-width prominent image alongside a tweet. It is designed to give the reader a rich photo experience, and clicking on the image brings the user to your website.”

Once you have your tags in place on your site, you can test them to make sure they’re working as expected and are ready for sharing.

You can use these tools to check your site OG tags:

If you take the time to add the HTML code to your site for both Open Graph and Twitter Cards, you can guarantee the image will appear on the social platforms each time your link is shared.

Bonus image optimization tips

Now that you have gone through the six tips for image optimization in 2021, here are three bonus tips to help you further optimize your site’s images.

7. Mobile-friendly images

With Google’s mobile-first indexing, it’s important to think about how your site’s images will work on mobile. Just like you would make your site responsive, one thing you might not know is that you can make your sites responsive as well. Having responsive images will ensure that your images will work well on devices with widely differing screen sizes.

8. Image file structure

Google mentions in their updated image guidelines that they use the file path and file name to rank images.

“Create good URL structure for your images: Google uses the URL path as well as the file name to help it understand your images. Consider organizing your image content so that URLs are constructed logically.”

So what does this mean for you? Well, let’s look at ecommerce optimization again as they usually feature multiple products. A good practice would be to place your images into different category folders that would correspond to your different products instead of just lumping them all into one generic folder.

9. Structured data

To help your images stand out even more you will want to add structured data. By adding structured data to your images, your images can then be displayed as rich results, which would then give users relevant information about your page, which could then drive better-targeted traffic to your site.

Google Images supports structured data for:

  • Product
  • Video
  • Recipe

Conclusion

Image SEO involves a few different aspects and elements to work to its full potential and search engines like Google and Bing are only going to get better at recognizing these elements.

For comparison, image SEO is relatively easy, as far as SEO goes. It’s not as complex as other aspects of SEO. If you take the time and put a little extra effort into properly optimizing your site’s images for both users and search engines every time you add an image to your website, you can give your pages a little extra edge in the search engines.

Remember, Google, Bing, and other search engines aren’t perfect, so you should try and do everything in your power to help them understand your images and you’ll reap the benefits.

So, before you start uploading and adding images to your site, make sure to follow the image optimization tips and best practices mentioned in this article.

Key takeaways for image SEO best practices and tips for image optimization:

  • Create an image sitemap or make sure your images are featured in your sitemap for crawlability and indexability
  • Choose the right image file format
  • Compress your images for faster page load speed
  • Create unique images
  • Create optimized image file names
  • Write SEO-Friendly alt texts and make sure they are relevant to the page
  • Like your site, make sure that your images are mobile-friendly
  • Use high-quality and relevant images
  • Customize file names
  • Add structured data
  • Create responsive images
  • Create an optimized file structure

Feel free to share your image SEO practices and queries in the comments section.

Michael McManus is Vice President, Communications Director at CannonDesign.

The post Image SEO: Best practices and tips for optimization appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Search Engine Watch


Oscar Health’s IPO filing will test the venture-backed insurance model

February 8, 2021 No Comments

Late Friday, Oscar Health filed to go public, adding another company to today’s burgeoning IPO market. The New York-based health insurance unicorn has raised well north of $ 1 billion during its life, making its public debut a critical event for a host of investors.

Oscar Health lists a placeholder raise value of $ 100 million in its IPO filing, providing only directional guidance that its public offering will raise nine figures of capital.

Both Oscar and the high-profile SPAC for Clover Medical will prove to be a test for the venture capital industry’s faith in their ability to disrupt traditional healthcare companies.

The eight-year-old company, launched to capitalize on the sweeping health insurance reforms passed under the administration of President Barack Obama offers insurance products to individuals, families and small businesses. The company claimed 529,000 “members” as of January 31, 2021. Oscar Health touts that number as indicative of its success, with its growth since January 31 2017 “representing a compound annual growth rate, or CAGR, of 59%.”

However, while Oscar has shown a strong ability to raise private funds and scale the revenues of its neoinsurance business, like many insurance-focused startups that TechCrunch has covered in recent years, it’s a deeply unprofitable enterprise.

Inside Oscar Health

To understand Oscar Health we have to dig a bit into insurance terminology, but it’ll be as painless as we can manage. So, how did the company perform in 2020? Here are its 2020 metrics, and their 2019 comps:

  • Total premiums earned: $ 1.67 billion (+61% from $ 1.04 billion).
  • Premiums ceded to reinsurers: $ 1.22 billion (+113%, from $ 572.3 million).
  • Net premium earned: $ 455 million (-3% from $ 468.9 million).
  • Total revenue: $ 462.8 million (-5% from $ 488.2 million).
  • Total insurance costs: $ 525.9 million (-8.7% from $ 576.1 million).
  • Total operating expenses: $ 865.1 million (+16% from $ 747.6 million).
  • Operating loss: $ 402.3 million (+56% from $ 259.4 million).

Let’s walk through the numbers together. Oscar Health did a great job raising its total premium volume in 2020, or, in simpler terms, it sold way more insurance last year than it did in 2019. But it also ceded a lot more premium to reinsurance companies in 2020 than it did in 2019. So what? Ceding premiums is contra-revenue, but can serve to boost overall insurance margins.

As we can see in the net premium earned line, Oscar’s totals fell in 2020 compared to 2019 thanks to greatly expanded premium ceding. Indeed, its total revenue fell in 2020 compared to 2019 thanks to that effort. But the premium ceding seems to be working for the company, as its total insurance costs (our addition of its claims line item and “other insurance costs” category) fell from 2020 to 2019, despite selling far more insurance last year.

Sadly, all that work did not mean that the company’s total operating expenses fell. They did not, rising 16% or so in 2020 compared to 2019. And as we all know, more operating costs and fewer revenues mean that operating losses rose, and they did.

Oscar Health’s net losses track closely to its operating losses, so we spared you more data. Now to better understand the basic economics of Oscar Health’s insurance business, let’s get our hands dirty.


Startups – TechCrunch


Why Honesty is the Best Policy in PPC Marketing

February 8, 2021 No Comments

Over the years, I have seen so many horror stories when it comes to PPC Management. Whether it’s advertisers flying blind with their ad budgets or the common event of not knowing that their ads are being shown with irrelevant terms, there should always 100% transparency between the agency and the client. Furthermore, there needs to be more HONESTY on behalf of the PPC Agency. In this post, I will talk about a few areas of the Agency/Client Relationship that should be based on being honest with the client.

Educate the Advertiser:

Let’s face it, the PPC agency knows more about PPC Marketing than the client. However, that does not mean the client needs to be taken advantage of because they do not know how everything works. The person handling the client’s account needs to “in many ways” educate the client as to what is working, not working and where there are opportunities.

Admit Mistakes:

Everyone makes mistakes, right? Well, PPC Agencies should not try and hide them just because they can get away with it. Agencies should be forthcoming with admitting mistakes that were made and how efficiently and effectively they were fixed. It’s better to be honest with the client, than having them find out later that you lied to them. Ever heard of a Referral or a Testimonial?

Honest and Factual Reporting:

Over the years, I have seen so many poor examples of PPC Reporting where clients receive an excel spreadsheet of just Clicks, Impressions, CTR%, CPCs, etc… and not a single keyword or text ad or even a sentence on the performance of the account. In today’s world that is unacceptable.  Moreover, I have also seen examples of trend charts being manipulated to disguise the true performance of a specific metric. Agencies have a responsibility to provide not only excellent service, but also honest and factual reporting.

Managing Expectations:

PPC Marketing is not for everyone and for those who are spending money have this perception that the more they spend the better the results. That is completely FALSE. If an client/advertiser was given any sort of Guarantee from an agency, they should “run for the hills”. Guarantees in PPC Marketing are very dangerous for both parties because they create false expectations. An agency must be honest and upfront with the client when it comes to setting expectations both on performance and future success. The agency must have a clear understanding of the client’s:

  • Cost per Conversions/Acquisition
  • Targeted Audience
  • Messaging Tactics
  • Daily and Monthly Budgets

In Conclusion:

Honesty is always the best policy in PPC. Agencies have a responsibility to not only provide excellent service, but also be honest and forthcoming with the client. I have heard countless stories of poor PPC Management, including the topics I mentioned in this post. Some may say that is good for the industry because it creates more “turnover” and more opportunities for other agencies. However, for this PPC Geek, I believe in Happy Clients.


Digital Marketing Agency | Google Ads Consultant


Opinion News Found By Machine Learning at Google

February 7, 2021 No Comments

Opinion News in Top Stories Earlier this year, I wrote a post about news stories that are shown in carousels in Google Top Stories Are Chosen By Importance Scores The patent I wrote about in that post told us that Google may attempt to show opinion pieces related to topics that were being identified as … Read more

The post Opinion News Found By Machine Learning at Google appeared first on SEO by the Sea ⚓.


SEO by the Sea ⚓


When Facebook Ads is NOT a Viable Strategy for Clients

February 7, 2021 No Comments

It’s only human nature to try things that other people are doing because it feels like a good idea and/or the right thing to do. In many instances, the outcome is either neutral or positive. However, in today’s online marketing world, just because someone is doing it, doesn’t make the outcome “good”. In contrast, it could actually backfire (both financially and reputation-wise). Let me explain.

When Facebook rolled out their advertising platform, everyone wanted to get in on the action. After a few years of “trial and error” trying to figure out the algorithm, it became clear that this was a potential money-making machine for advertisers. However, it didn’t take long for these same advertisers to see that their Ad dollars increasing while their Cost/Conversion skyrocket. It was this outcome, that started everyone to second-guess the benefit of this new PPC alternative to Google Adwords (now Google Ads)

Personally, many of my clients over the years wanted to try Facebook ads and frankly who wouldn’t? It was an amazing feeling where an advertiser could target pretty much anything they wanted. (Men 55+, Divorced, like Fine Scotch, NY Yankees and watches CNN). However, that honeymoon didn’t last very long. It was not based on strategy or setting inaccurate expectations, it was simply not cost effective and actually started to hurt their reputation. Clients would take a hit based simply on comments given by competitors and/or disgruntled people. It was this experience that quickly changed the minds of not only myself, but also the client. It was this combination of poor performance along with reputation issues that made them feel even more skeptical this new platform. However, over the years there’s been (1) one silver-lining and that is identifying which clients could benefit the most from this hyper-targeting platform.

In conclusion, as an Agency or Freelancer it is entirely OK to say to a client NO to Facebook Ads or at the very least say we should do a “test” to evaluate it’s potential. In candor, it all depends on the advertiser’s audience along with sensible strategies and agreed upon success metrics.


Digital Marketing Agency | Google Ads Consultant


Will the Clubhouse model work in China?

February 7, 2021 No Comments

On Friday just past midnight, I stumbled across a Clubhouse room hosted by a well-known figure in the Chinese startup community, Feng Dahui. At half-past midnight, the room still had nearly 500 listeners, many of whom were engineers, product managers, and entrepreneurs from China.

The discussion centered around whether Clubhouse, an app that lets people join pop-up voice chats in virtual rooms, will succeed in China. That’s a question I have been asking myself in recent weeks. Given the current hype swirling in Silicon Valley about the audio social network, it’s unsurprising to see well-informed, tech-savvy Chinese users start flocking to the platform. Demand for invitations in China runs high, with people paying as much as $ 100 to buy one from scalpers.

Many users I talked to believe the app won’t reach its full potential or even just find product-market fit in China before it gets banned. Indeed, a handful of well-attended Chinese-language rooms touch on topics that are normally censored in China, from crypto trading to protests in Hong Kong.

If it’s of any consolation, Clubhouse clones and derivatives are already in the making in China. A Chinese entrepreneur and blogger who goes by the nickname Herock told me he is aware of at least “dozens of local teams” that are working on something similar. Moreover, voice-based networking has been around in China for years, albeit in different forms. If Clubhouse is blocked, will any of its alternatives go on to succeed?

Information control

A direct Clubhouse clone probably won’t work in China.

A few factors dim its prospects in the country, which has nearly one billion internet users. The major appeal of Clubhouse is the organic flow of conversations in real time. But “how could the Chinese government allow free-flowing discussions to happen and spread without control,” a founder of a Chinese audio app rhetorically asked, declining to be named for this story. Video live streaming in China, for example, is under close regulatory oversight limiting who can speak and what they can say.

The founder then cited a famous online protest back in 2011. Thousands of small vendors launched a cyber attack on Alibaba’s online mall over a proposed fee hike. The tool they used to coordinate with one another was YY, which started out as a voice-based chatting software for gamers and later became known for video live streaming.

“The authorities dread the power of real-time audio communication,” the founder added.

There are signs that Clubhouse may already be the target of censorship. While Clubhouse works perfectly in China without the need for a virtual private network (VPN) or other censorship-circumvention tools (at least for the moment), the iOS-exclusive app is unavailable on China’s App Store. Clubhouse was removed there shortly after its global release in late September, app analytics firm Sensor Tower said.

Currently, in order to install Clubhouse, Chinese users need to install the app by switching to an App Store located in another country, which further limits the product’s reach to users who have the means of using a non-local store.

It’s unclear whether Apple preemptively delisted Clubhouse in anticipation of government action, given that any later removal of a major foreign app in China could stir up accusations of censorship. Alternatively, Clubhouse might have voluntarily pulled the app itself knowing that any form of real-time broadcasting won’t go unchecked by Chinese regulators, which would inevitably compromise user experience.

Entering China could be way down on Clubhouse’s to-do list given the traction it is gaining elsewhere. The app has seen about 3.6 million worldwide installs so far, according to Sensor Tower estimates. The majority of its lifetime installs originate in the United States, where the app has seen nearly 2 million first-time downloads, followed by Japan and Germany both with over 400,000 downloads.

Clubhouse elites

Clubhouse room hosted by Feng Dahui, a respected figure in China’s startup world. (Screenshot by TechCrunch)

The improbability of uncensored and open discussions on the Chinese internet may explain why the market hasn’t seen its own Clubhouse. But even if an app like Clubhouse is allowed to exist in China, it may not reach the same massive scale across the country as Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and WeChat did.

The app is “elitist,” sort of like a voice version of Twitter, said Marco Lai, CEO and founder of Lizhi, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese audio platform. So far, Clubhouse’s invite-only model has confined its American user base largely to the tech, arts and celebrity circles. Herock observed that its Chinese demographics mirror the trend, with users concentrated in fields like finance, startup and product management, as well as crypto traders.

Even among these users though, there is the question of free time. The other night, I was up at midnight eavesdropping on a group of ByteDance employees. In fact, I’ve mostly been on Clubhouse in the late evenings after work, because that’s when user activity in China appears to peak. “Who in China has that much time?” said Zhou Lingyu, founder of Rainmaker, a Chinese networking community for professionals, when I asked whether she thinks Clubhouse will attract the masses in China.

While her remark may not apply to everyone, the tech-centric, educated crowds in China — the demographic that Clubhouse appears to be targeting or at least attracting — are also those most likely to work the notorious “996” schedule, the long hours practice common in Chinese tech companies. The type of “meaningful conversations” that Clubhouse encourages is desirable, but the app’s real-time, spontaneous nature is also a lot to ask of 996 workers, who likely prefer more efficient and manageable use of time.

Moderators may also need material incentives to remain active aside from the pure passion in connecting with other human beings. One potential solution is to turn quality conversations into podcast episodes. “Clubhouse is for one-off, casual conversations. Those who produce high-quality content would want to record the conversation so it could be for repeatable consumption later on,” said Zhou.

Chinese counterparts

In China, audio networking has played out in slightly different shapes. Some companies place a great deal of focus on gamification, filling their apps with playful, interactive features.

Lizhi’s social podcast app, for example, is not just about listening. It also lets listeners message hosts, tip them through virtual gifts, record themselves shadowing a host who is reading a poem, compete in online karaoke contests, and more.

Interaction between hosts and listeners happens in a relatively orchestrated way, as Lizhi’s operational staff design campaigns and work with content creators behind the scenes to ensure content quality and user engagement. Clubhouse growth, in comparison, is more organic.

“The Chinese products focus more on spectatorship and performance, not so much translating natural social behavior in real life into a product. Clubhouse features are simple. It’s more like a coffee shop,” Lai said.

Lizhi’s other voice product Tiya is considered a close answer to Clubhouse, but Tiya’s users are young — the majority of whom are 15-22 years old — and it focuses on entertainment, letting users chat via audio while they play games and watch sports. That also feeds the need for companionship.

Dizhua, which launched in 2019, is another Chinese app that’s been compared to Clubhouse. Unlike Clubhouse, which relies on people’s existing networks for room discovery, Dizhua matches anonymous users based on their declared interests. Clubhouse conversations can start and die off casually. Dizhua encourages users to pick a theme and stay engaged.

“Clubhouse is a pure audio app, with no timeline, no comment, et cetera,” said Armin Li, an expert in residence with a venture capital firm in China. “It’s a kind of casual and drop-in style for the scenarios where user needs are not clear like hangout or multitasking … Its high community participation, content quality, and user quality are unseen in Chinese voice products.”

The bottom line is: The conversations that happen on Chinese platforms are monitored by content auditors. User registration requires real-name verification on internet platforms in China, so there’s no real anonymity online. The topics that users can discuss are limited, often leaning towards the fun and innocuous.

Why do people in China join Clubhouse anyway? Some, like me, joined out of FOMO. Entrepreneurs are always scouring for the next market opportunity, and product managers from internet giants hope to learn a thing or two from Clubhouse that they could apply to their own products. Bitcoin traders and activists, on the other hand, see Clubhouse as a haven outside the purview of Chinese regulators.

Technical support

One thing I find impressive about Clubhouse is how smoothly it works in China. Even when a foreign app isn’t banned in China, it often loads slowly due to its servers’ distance from China.

Clubhouse doesn’t actually build the technology supporting its enormous chat groups that sometimes reach thousands of participants. Instead, it uses a real-time audio SDK from Agora, two sources told me. The South China Morning Post also reported that. When asked to verify the partnership, Agora CEO Tony Zhao said via email he can’t confirm or deny any engagement between his company and Clubhouse.

Rather, he emphasized Agora’s “virtual network,” which overlays on top of the public internet running on more than 200 co-located data centers worldwide. The company then uses algorithms to plan traffic and optimize routing.

Noticeably, Agora’s operations teams are mainly in China and the U.S., a setup that inevitably raises questions about whether Clubhouse data are within the scope of Chinese regulations, a possibility that the company flagged in its IPO prospectus.

With real-time voice technology providers like Agora, opportunists are able to build Clubhouse clones quickly at low costs, Herock said. Chinese entrepreneurs are unlikely to copy Clubhouse directly due to local regulatory challenges and different user behavior, but they will race to crank out their own interpretations of voice networking before the hype around Clubhouse fades away.


Social – TechCrunch


Minneapolis police used geofence warrant at George Floyd protests

February 7, 2021 No Comments

Police in Minneapolis obtained a search warrant ordering Google to turn over sets of account data on vandals accused of sparking violence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year, TechCrunch has learned.

The death of Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in May 2020, prompted thousands to peacefully protest across the city. But violence soon erupted, which police say began with a masked man seen in a viral video using an umbrella to smash windows of an auto-parts store in south Minneapolis. The AutoZone store was the first among dozens of buildings across the city set on fire in the days following.

The search warrant compelled Google to provide police with the account data on anyone who was “within the geographical region” of the AutoZone store when the violence began on May 27, two days after Floyd’s death.

These so-called geofence warrants — or reverse-location warrants — are frequently directed at Google in large part because the search and advertising giant collects and stores vast databases of geolocation data on billions of account holders who have “location history” turned on. Geofence warrants allow police to cast a digital dragnet over a crime scene and ask tech companies for records on anyone who entered a geographic area at a particular time. But critics say these warrants are unconstitutional as they also gather the account information on innocent passers-by.

TechCrunch learned of the search warrant from Minneapolis resident Said Abdullahi, who received an email from Google stating that his account information was subject to the warrant, and would be given to the police.

But Abdullahi said he had no part in the violence and was only in the area to video the protests when the violence began at the AutoZone store.

The warrant said police sought “anonymized” account data from Google on any phone or device that was close to the AutoZone store and the parking lot between 5:20pm and 5:40pm (CST) on May 27, where dozens of the people in the area had gathered.

When reached, Minneapolis police spokesperson John Elder, citing an ongoing investigation, would not answer specific questions about the warrant, including for what reason the warrant was issued.

According to a police affidavit, police said the protests had been relatively peaceful until the afternoon of May 27, when a masked umbrella-wielding man began smashing the windows of the AutoZone store, located across the street from a Minneapolis police precinct where hundreds of protesters had gathered. Several videos show protesters confronting the masked man.

Police said they spent significant resources on trying to identify the so-called “Umbrella Man,” who they say was the catalyst for widespread violence across the city.

“This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city,” the affidavit read. At least two people were killed in the unrest. (Erika Christensen, a Minneapolis police investigator who filed the affidavit, was not made available for an interview.)

Police accuse the Umbrella Man of creating an “atmosphere of hostility and tension” whose sole aim was to “incite violence.” (TechCrunch is not linking to the affidavit as the police would not say if the suspect had been charged with a crime.) The affidavit also links the suspect to a white supremacist group called the Aryan Cowboys, and to an incident weeks later where a Muslim woman was harassed.

Multiple videos of the protests around the time listed on the warrant appear to line up with the window-smashing incident. Other videos of the scene at the time of the warrant show hundreds of other people in the vicinity. Police were positioned on rooftops and used tear gas and rubber bullets to control the crowds.

Law enforcement across the U.S. are increasingly relying on geofence warrants to solve crimes where a suspect is not known. Police have defended the use of these warrants because they can help identify potential suspects who entered a certain geographic region where a crime was committed. The warrants typically ask for “anonymized information,” but allow police to go back and narrow their requests on potential suspects of interest.

When allowed by law, Google notifies account holders of when law enforcement demands access to the user’s data. According to a court filing in 2019, Google said the number of geofence warrants it received went up by 1,500% between 2017 and 2018, and more than 500% between 2018 and 2019, but has yet to provide a specific number of warrants

Google reportedly received over 180 geofence warrants in a single week in 2019. When asked about more recent figures, a Google spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

Read more on TechCrunch

Civil liberties groups have criticized the use of dragnet search warrants. The American Civil Liberties Union said that geofence warrants “circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance.” One district court in Virginia said geofence warrants violated the constitution because the majority of individuals whose data is collected will have “nothing whatsoever” to do with the crimes under investigation.

Reports in the past year have implicated people whose only connection to a crime is simply being nearby.

NBC News reported the case of one Gainesville, Fla. resident, who was told by Google that his account information would be given to police investigating a burglary. But the resident was able to prove that he had no connection to the burglary, thanks to an app on his phone that tracked his activity.

In 2019, Google gave federal agents investigating several arson attacks in Milwaukee, Wis. close to 1,500 user records in response to geofence warrant, thought to be one of the largest grabs of account data to date.

But lawmakers are beginning to push back. New York state lawmakers introduced a bill last year that would, if passed, ban geofence warrants across the state, citing the risk of police targeting protesters. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) grilled Google chief executive Sundar Pichai at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing last year. “People would be terrified to know that law enforcement could grab general warrants and get everyone’s information everywhere,” said Armstrong.

Abdullahi told TechCrunch that he had several videos documenting the protests on the day and that he has retained a lawyer to try to prevent Google from giving his account information to Minneapolis police.

“Police assumed everybody in that area that day is guilty,” he said. “If one person did something criminal, [the police] should not go after the whole block of people,” he said.


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Mobile – TechCrunch


Lightspeed’s Gaurav Gupta and Grafana’s Raj Dutt discuss pitch decks, pricing and how to nail the narrative

February 6, 2021 No Comments

Before he was a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, Gaurav Gupta had his eye on Grafana Labs, the company that supports open-source analytics platform Grafana. But Raj Dutt, Grafana’s co-founder and CEO, played hard to get.

This week on Extra Crunch Live, the duo explained how they came together for Grafana’s Series A — and eventually, its Series B. They also walked us through Grafana’s original Series A pitch deck before Gupta shared the aspects that stood out to him and how he communicated those points to the broader partnership at Lightspeed.

Gupta and Dutt also offered feedback on pitch decks submitted by audience members and shared their thoughts about what makes a great founder presentation, pulling back the curtain on how VCs actually consume pitch decks.

We’ve included highlights below as well as the full video of our conversation.

We record new episodes of Extra Crunch Live each Wednesday at 12 p.m. PST/3 p.m. EST/8 p.m. GMT. Check out the February schedule here.

Episode breakdown:

  • How they met — 2:20
  • Grafana’s early pitch deck — 12:25
  • The enterprise ecosystem — 26:00
  • The pitch deck teardown — 33:00

How they met

As soon as Gupta joined Lightspeed in June 2019, he began pursuing Dutt and Grafana Labs. He texted, called and emailed, but he got little to no response. Eventually, he made plans to go meet the team in Stockholm but, even then, Dutt wasn’t super responsive.

The pair told the story with smiles on their faces. Dutt said that not only was he disorganized and not entirely sure of his own travel plans to see his co-founder in Stockholm, Grafana wasn’t even raising. Still, Gupta persisted and eventually sent a stern email.

“At one point, I was like ‘Raj, forget it. This isn’t working’,” recalled Gupta. “And suddenly he woke up.” Gupta added that he got mad, which “usually does not work for VCs, by the way, but in this case, it kind of worked.”

When they finally met, they got along. Dutt said they were able to talk shop due to Gupta’s experience inside organizations like Splunk and Elastic. Gupta described the trip as a whirlwind, where time just flew by.

“One of the reasons that I liked Gaurav is that he was a new VC,” explained Dutt. “So to me, he seemed like one of the most non-VC VCs I’d ever met. And that was actually quite attractive.”

To this day, Gupta and Dutt don’t have weekly standing meetings. Instead, they speak several times a week, conversing organically about industry news, Grafana’s products and the company’s overall trajectory.

Grafana’s early pitch deck

Dutt shared Grafana’s pre-Series A pitch deck — which he actually sent to Gupta and Lightspeed before they met — with the Extra Crunch Live audience. But as we know now, it was the conversations that Dutt and Gupta had (eventually) that provided the spark for that deal.


Enterprise – TechCrunch